ALL DOG BREED PROFILES

Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherd
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Despite the name of the breed, the Australian Shepherd was actually created in the United States around the time of the Gold Rush in the 1840s. It was developed to herd livestock and still remains a working breed even to this day. He is happiest when he is given a job to do, and makes a wonderful family companion. His intelligence and energy make him very suitable for dog sports and athletics challenges.

Breed Characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
TrainabilityAbove Average
Health and GroomingAbove Average
All Around FriendlinessAbove Average
Exercise NeedsHighest

Dog Breed Group:Herding dogs
Height:Eighteen to twenty-three inches at the shoulder
Weight:Forty to sixty-five pounds
Life Span:12 to 15 years

The sight of an Australian Shepherd rounding in a flock of sheep on its own is a beautiful sight to see. His graceful athletic movement is comparable, and he does very well at his job without having to be aggressive with the flock he’s protecting. With just a nip or a bark, no creature that he herds ever dares to challenge him. He is known for being very intelligent, hard working and versatile. He’s a no-nonsense dog who thrives in the home where he can put his brains and energy to good use.

You may not even be a farmer or shepherd with livestock of your own, but keeping him busy is key, or else he will become quite bored. His seemingly endless amounts of energy require exercise on a daily basis, and he is no way content to remain a couch potato for days on end.

When it comes to exercise, you’re going to have to do more than just a walk around the block. His physical needs also require there to be some kind of mental challenge. If he doesn’t have a job to do, he will become quite bored and destructive in the process. He will bark for hours on end until he receives the attention he believes he deserves, or he will invent jobs of his own to do. Don’t be surprised if he starts herding the members of your family around the house, chasing cards, other animals, or simply ripping your house apart. The Australian Shepherd is not the breed for you if you don’t have the time and energy to dedicate to train and exercise him on a daily basis.

If dog competitions are your thing, however, then you won’t find a more successful dog breed than the Australian Shepherd. He’s a top contender for all levels of obedience, agility, flyball, and herding tests. This dedication to completing any task given to him has expanded his abilities to other jobs, such as assistance dog, hearing dog, guide dog, police dog, and search and rescue work. You can even teach him to help you with chores around the house, such as picking up laundry from the floor.

In terms of looks, he really stands out from a crowd, with his attractive, medium-length coat that comes in a variety of colors. His lineage as a working dog also makes him a good protector of the home, and he can be quite aloof with strangers. He can definitely make your life an adventure, and will play from sunrise to sunset if he could. He’s quite versatile, but only if you have the energy to deal with his needs. Lying around the house most of the day just isn’t going to cut it for the Australian Shepherd.

Main Highlights
  • Australian Shepherds need about 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. They should include high-energy activities, such as chasing a Frisbee. Daily obedience training and giving them a job to do will also help to keep their minds active. Left alone, they can become very destructive and bark for long periods of time. Providing mental stimulation and exercise will prevent this from happening.
  • If they see or hear something suspicious, they will back to warn you. They’re known for being protectors of the home and the family, and will display surprising fierceness when they believe they are being threatened.
  • Although they do well in wide open spaces, they are suitable for living in cities, providing that they still get the exercise that they need. Apartments, on the other hand, are not very suitable for them, since they don’t provide much space for exercise.
  • This breed can be pushy at times with livestock, and this translates to the members of the family as well. A timid or first-time owner will be dominated very easily. A firm hand will curtail this behaviour, and consistency will ensure that he doesn’t get away with misbehaving when you’re not looking.
  • They are average shedders and need brushing on a weekly basis. Trimming can help to keep it tidy.
  • They are social animals and enjoy the company of their humans. Being left alone for long periods of time is definitely not good for him.
  • They can be quite standoffish with those that they don’t know. Regular exposure to visitors can make this easier, especially when they are puppies. Without this, they can become extremely fearful of strangers.
Breed History

It’s questionable which breeds of dog were used to develop the Australian Shepherd. Some say that the collie and other shepherd-type dogs were imported and used, especially during the times when sheep were being imported as well.

Farmers needed some way to move their sheep around and keep them protected without being in the pastures themselves. The name for the breed stuck when sheep were being imported from Australia and the plucky little dog took so well to herding them.

The breed surged in popularity after World War II, especially with the renewed interest in Western horseback riding. Horse shows and rodeos became all the rage, and adding these skillful dogs certainly increased their appeal. Despite their popularity, however, they weren’t officially recognized by the AKC until 1993. Today, they are considered the most energetic, eye-catching dog breed that ranchers and farmers have ever kept.

Size

An Australian Shepherd is known for being longer than he is tall. They can stand anywhere from twenty to twenty-three inches tall for males, and eighteen to twenty-one inches tall at the shoulder for females. On average, they can weigh between forty to sixty-five pounds. Any advertisements that you see for smaller versions of this dog, such as “teacup”, “toy”, or “miniature” are not recognized as true Australian Shepherds. They are meant to be a functional working dog, and any smaller varieties of the breed would be ineffective at the task.

Personality and Character

Without a firm hand, an Aussie will assume the dominant role of the home. Asserting leadership will let him know who’s boss, and he’s likely to back down. Like many herding dogs, they are very loyal and protective of their family, and wary of strangers. Early socialization will curtail this and make it easier for them to accept guests into the home.

Health and Potential Problems

Australian Shepherds are known for having excellent health, but they are prone to certain health conditions. They’re important considerations to keep in mind for future planning when these conditions present themselves.

  • Hip dysplasia: this is a hereditary condition that causes degradation of the hip joint over time. It doesn’t present until the dog starts to get into his senior years. Maintaining your dog’s weight and not overdoing exercise can minimize the damage and pain that is caused from this condition. Supplements can definitely help to relieve the pain and prevent the degradation from occurring too quickly, and should be attempted before surgery is considered as an option.
  • Elbow dysplasia: this is a hereditary condition that is often found in many dog breeds. It is believed that it is the result of the three bones of the elbow growing at different rates, so that they don’t fit together properly. This can lead to lameness, and should be treated before the condition becomes severe. Surgery and medication can correct or ease the symptoms of the condition, and weight management can help to relieve the stress on the bones.
  • Epilepsy: this is a disorder that results in seizures. This condition can be detected when they are a puppy, or not until much later in life when they are an adult. It can be managed with medication, but it is a condition that doesn’t have a cure. Your dog can still continue to maintain a long and healthy life with epilepsy, as long as measures are taken to safeguard his health during an episode.
  • Deafness: it is pretty common in Australian Shepherds, and can pose a lot of challenges for a dog owner having a deaf dog for the first time. Some forms of deafness can be treated with medication and surgery, but it typically cannot be cured. Patience and time is required to train and live with a deaf dog. However, there are many helpful tools that can make the experience easier, such as vibrating collars. If your dog has been diagnosed with deafness, then it’s important to consider whether you have the time and patience to care for such a dog. It’s also a good idea to contact the breeder you got your dog from.
  • Osteochondrosis Dissecans: this is an orthopedic condition that results in the cartilage of the joints growing improperly. It is known to occur in the elbows and shoulders, and results in the painful stiffening of a joint. It can be detected in dogs as young as four to nine months of age. Refrain from overfeeding growth formula and high-protein foods to puppies in order to prevent this condition.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy: this is where the dog’s eye starts to lose photoreceptors. It is detectable before the dog has been rendered completely blind, but there is no way of reversing it. Most dogs can use their other senses to compensate for the loss of their sight, however, and continue to live full and healthy lives.
  • Cataracts: the lens of the dog’s eye(s) starts to become cloudy, making it difficult for him to see. It occurs in senior dogs, and it can be surgically repaired in order to improve your dog’s vision.
  • Distichiasis: this is where there is the abnormal growth of eyelashes on the oil gland of the dog’s eye. This leads to irritation and make your dog’s eyes tear up more than usual. If you do notice your Shepherd rubbing at his eye or squinting, then it’s a good idea to take him to the vet. Surgery can remove these extra eyelashes and improve your dog’s quality of life.
  • Collie eye anomaly: this is an inherited condition that can lead to blindness in some dogs. It occurs by the time a dog is two years old, and requires the expertise of a veterinary ophthalmologist to arrive at a diagnosis. There is no treatment for it, but dogs have been known to live well without their eyesight. Contact your breeder immediately when you receive a diagnosis.
  • Persistent pupillary membranes: these are strands of tissue in the eye that were once a part of the fetal membrane that nourished the eyes before birth. They typically disappear by the time a puppy is four to five weeks old. However, sometimes, they don’t go away. They can stretch from iris to iris, iris to lens, cornea to iris, or be found in the front chamber of the eye. They generally do not cause any problems for the dog’s vision and disappear by week eight of a puppy’s life, but if not, they can lead to cataracts or corneal opacities. Prescription eye drops can be provided by your vet to break them down.
  • Hypothyroidism: this is where the thyroid starts to malfunction and produces lower levels of a hormone responsible for metabolism. Symptoms of this condition include obesity, mental dullness, lethargy, drooping of the eyelids, and irregular heat cycles. The dog’s fur can become coarse and brittle, and starts to fall out. The skin also becomes tough and dark. The condition can be treated with medication, and must be administered throughout a dog’s life. However, this does not diminish the quality of his life.
  • Allergies: dogs can suffer from food allergies, contact allergies, and react to allergens in the air. The triggers for these allergies should be removed from your dog’s daily life in order to prevent a flare-up from occurring. It can take some time to discover what these triggers are, but patience and time will help you to improve the quality of your dog’s life.
  • Drug sensitivity: this is caused by a mutation of the Multidrug Resistance Gene within the dog that is known to produce P-glycoprotein. What this protein does is to remove toxic substances from the body in order to prevent harmful effects from occurring. This mutation causes the gene to not function properly and these toxins aren’t removed. Signs that your dog may be sensitive to certain drugs include tremors, depression, seizures, lack of coordination, hypersalivation, coma, and possibly death. There is no treatment for the condition, but being aware of it can help you and your vet determine the best course of action when it comes to medications.
  • Cancer: dogs can develop cancer just like humans can. There are a wide variety of cancers that a dog may be susceptible to, and there are various successful treatments for you to choose from. Such treatments include chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumors. Depending on the kind of tumor, surgery may not be necessary if it is not impacting your dog’s health in any way.
  • Nasal solar dermatitis: also known as Collie-nose, this occurs in dogs who have little or no pigmentation in their noses. Dogs that are super-sensitive to sunlight develop lesions on the nose and sometimes around the eyelids. It can be difficult to diagnose at first, because there are other diseases that can cause lesions in these areas. On receiving a diagnosis, keep your Australian Shepherd out of direct sunlight, and apply sunscreen specially developed for dogs before he goes outside.
  • Detached retina: when an injury occurs to your dog’s face, there’s the chance that his retina will become detached from the underlying supportive tissues. A detached retina can lead to visual impairment and even blindness. There is no treatment option available for the condition, but many dogs seem hardly affected by it and continue to live full lives.
Care Features

In order to keep your Australian Shepherd happy, it’s key that you provide him with a lot of exercise and mental stimulation. A fenced-in yard works best; forget about electronic fencing, as this won’t work. His need to run and herd will outweigh the mild shock he’ll experience. For that reason, it is best that you never walk an Australian Shepherd off-leash. Once his exercise needs have been met, provide him with some puzzle toys that reward him for figuring it out.

As puppies, Australian Shepherds don’t need as much exercise as their adult counterparts. They should never run on hard surfaces and they shouldn’t do a lot of jumping until they’re about one year old. This minimizes the stress on the skeletal system so that they won’t suffer from bone and joint problems in the future.

Training methods that focus on positive reinforcement work best on Aussies, and will begin to happily take commands from their owners. This makes it easier for you to teach your dog not to nip and bark when they’re giving in to their herding tendencies and bad manners. If you’re having difficulties working on his behaviour on your own, enroll your Shepherd in an obedience class to help you. In the process, you can learn some tricks and tips to providing him with the stimulation that he needs.

Feeding Schedule

It’s best to feed an Australian Shepherd a diet of high-quality dog food in order to provide them with the minerals and vitamins that they need to maintain their metabolism. It’s best that you do not leave food out for him all day, as he may become bored with it and not eat it. As for the amount, he should be fed at least 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of food each day, divided between two meals.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The Australian Shepherd has a medium-length water-resistant coat to keep him comfortable in rain and snow. Aussies in cold climates have a heavier undercoat than those who live in sunnier areas. Straight or wavy hair covers the body, with short, smooth hair on the head and ears, the front of the forelegs, and below the heels (known as the hocks in dog terms).

Moderate feathering, or a longer fringe of hair, covers the back of the forelegs and the britches — the pantaloon-like fur on the upper part of the hind legs. There’s long, profuse hair — which is especially thick and full in males — on the neck and chest.

Australian Shepherds come in several colors: blue merle, red merle, red, tri-color (white, black, and tan), and black. A merle coat has a patchwork of dark blotches against a lighter background, so a blue merle dog has black patches on gray and a red merle dog has red patches on beige. Merles tend to become darker with age.

The breed sheds year-round, but more heavily during spring as he loses his winter coat. Brush the Aussie’s coat weekly, perhaps more often during shedding season, to prevent matting. Before you start brushing, spritz the coat with a dog hair conditioner diluted with water to detangle. Then, using a slicker brush, stroke in the direction the hair grows, being sure to get all the way down to the skin. An undercoat rake is also handy for removing excess hair. Mats are common behind the ears, and you may need to work through them with a stripping comb.

Your Aussie should need a bath only when he’s dirty, which probably won’t be more than a few times a year. Use a shampoo made for dogs to avoid drying out his skin and coat. Grooming sessions are a good time to check your dog’s overall condition. Before you start brushing, check your dog for sores, rashes, dry skin, or signs of infection such as inflammation or tenderness. Check eyes for goopy discharge and ears for foreign objects such as burrs or foxtails.

The coat should look shiny, not dull. A dull coat could indicate a need for a better diet or more frequent grooming. Nails should be trimmed on a regular basis to prevent painful splintering. You may also want to keep your Aussie looking tidy by trimming the hair on and around the ears, on the feet and between the toes, and around the tail area. You can seek assistance from a professional groomer if you’ve never trimmed a dog before.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

When it comes to children and other pets, your Australian Shepherd is most likely to herd them as if they were flock. You’ll have to teach your dog that chasing and nipping the other residents in the home is a no-no. Once they learn, however, they’ll keep it with them for life and return the same affection to the rest of the family. When it comes to other pets, the same precautions should be taught and cats are most likely to not enjoy this behaviour.

The Australian Shepherd is not a couch potato. With a pool of energy that could serve as a home generator, he isn’t content to stay inside all day long. Getting him out and about and challenging his mind is the best way to keep your Australian Shepherd the happiest.

Teaching him tricks and providing challenging puzzles for him to figure out will keep him active throughout the day, and you would do better to take him on a bike ride rather than a simple walk. The Australian Shepherd is a breed that isn’t suitable for a first time owner, simply because of the demands of his active lifestyle.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Ruth Harris

    The Australian Shepherd has been a source of discussion between me and my cousin who lives in Australia. She said this breed is nowhere to be found in Australia. How come?

    • The common misconception about the breed is that it came from Australia because of its name. Oddly enough, the breed was never developed in Australia but in the western United States to work at ranches. The Australian Shepherd is one of the most popular breeds in the United States, thanks to its intelligence, playfulness, and high energy.

  • John

    The Australian Shepherd ranks above average on train-ability, but still not as high as one would expect. Do they just instinctively do the herding or are they specifically trained to become better at it?

    • John Walton

      Australian Shepherds are specifically bred for herding, but they can also do other stuff like tricks and even participates in technical and agility contests.

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